Thursday, January 31, 2013
I preached this sermon at the Thursday night healing service at American University. The Biblical texts are Exodus 16:13-21 and 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
The Israelites were finally free.
After years of suffering under the iron hand of the Egyptian pharaoh, this long oppressed people had followed a new leader, Moses, away from slavery and into a new reality of liberation. The Egyptian army had been cast into the sea and the Israelite tribe, with much rejoicing, set out to find a new, beautiful home.
Two months into the journey, though, things have gotten real. Food and water are in shorty supply, and people are beginning to wonder just what kind of freedom this Moses—and this YHWH God he claims to represent—has gotten them into. In fact, some among the Israelites are wondering whether it would have been better to suffer with full bellies in Egypt rather than to die of starvation in this alien wilderness.
Luckily for Moses’ street cred, God has an idea. “I’ll rain bread from heaven for you,” says God. “That ought to satisfy those complaining Israelites. Heck, I’ll even throw in some quail for good measure.” So that’s where Moses and the Israelites find themselves, waking in the morning to a fine dew that evaporates to leave behind miraculous bread, “as fine as frost on the ground.” The Israelites call it manhu, which means, “what is it?” We transliterate it as “manna.” Manna, whatever that is, from heaven. Enough to feed a people.
As it turns out, it’s just enough to feed a people, because it seems there are certain rules and regulations involved in the gathering of this mysterious bread from heaven. Try to hoard it—heck, try to save even a little bit of what you’ve gathered for tomorrow—and you’ll find that it’s gone bad by the time the sun rises on a new day. This isn’t Chinese take-out, and there will be no leftovers from this particular meal. It bears noting that this looks like bad economics on God’s part. What a waste, all that extra manna going to rot. And of course there’s the nearsighted personal finance advice that this passage seems to give. My parents have drilled it into my head the importance of savings since I got my first allowance. And here’s God, explicitly telling the Israelites not to put some aside for a rainy day, or for a drought-like desert day as the case might be.
I do think there are hints here about God’s economy, what author Shane Claiborne calls “an economy rooted in love.” Nobody hoards in this economy. Nobody gets more than any other. But nobody goes hungry either. It’s the economy the early disciples of Christ followed in the Book of Acts, sharing all of their possessions and ensuring that nobody was in permanent need. Nobody goes wanting. Everybody has enough.
This “enough” that God offers the Israelites in this passage from Exodus is grace, sheer grace. It’s a gift offered by God to feed God’s people. And it’s a gift, please note, that doesn’t simply leave the Israelites where they are. It’s a gift that transforms. It teaches them a new way of being, with God, within their own individual lives, and with each other. In the desert places, in the hungry places, the places that are not yet the promised land, there is regenerating grace to be found.
There is, then, a social aspect to grace, to the love of God manifest in our lives. But in our own personal desert spaces, too, and in the hungry yearnings of our communities, we look for God’s grace. Or perhaps we are not looking for grace, and it finds us anyway. Perhaps we are looking for something…can I say more?
This is the position that Paul finds himself in as he writes yet another letter to the Corinthians. Here Paul is pulling a characteristic Pauline trick of saying that he’s not going to boast about himself while actually boasting about himself. “Oh, I won’t boast,” says Paul, “but I will tell you about some anonymous someone—nudge nudge wink wink—who had these miraculous visions.” And then Paul pauses, and takes on a truly vulnerable tone. He tells his Corinthian readers that he’s hurting, that he’s really hurting. That he’s looking for God to take something from him, some part of him that causes him a deep pain. We don’t know what it is, exactly, but we know that Paul wants done with it. He wants complete healing. And he has to settle for grace.
I love the way that Paul recounts God’s words to him, because I think it can be such an accurate reflection of our experience with grace. “My grace is sufficient for you,” says God. Sufficient. Not extravagant, necessarily. Not everything that we’re looking for. Just sufficient. Just barely enough.
I heard this text, really heard it, for the first time while I was in the hospital at Sibley, soon to be diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder. The thing with bipolar disorder, like many other diseases, is that there’s no cure. Nobody could tell me that this thing, this painful part of me that I just wanted to go away, would disappear or fade away. I prayed and prayed, and never did God promise me that God would take this away from me. I did get some kind of assurance. I did feel, sometimes, the presence of God, just as I did feel, sometimes, what felt like the absence of God. God had not abandoned me. I did get grace. And I had to ask myself: is this enough?
Now my roommate at Wesley asked me what I was preaching on tonight, and when I told him, he told me I better not come in here and preach some version of “God doesn’t give you more than we can handle.” My roommate was a student at Virginia Tech when the mass shooting happened in 2007, and he had more than his share of well-meaning Christians telling him things like, “God has a plan” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I know Mark covered this a few months back, but that’s just a false statement. It indicates that God is handing us, as atomized individuals, suffering, and that we’re supposed to go it alone on our own God-given strength. My roommate says simply, of the shootings at Virginia Tech, “It was more than I could handle.”
I think Paul is going through this experience of feeling the absence of God, is feeling that he has more than he could handle. And God’s response doesn’t seem very encouraging. “My grace is sufficient for you.” It’s barely enough. And not, “I will take away your weakness,” but rather, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s power is made perfect in weakness. That’s a tough one to understand. It sounds like it’s saying that our places of pain are just part of God’s plan. I don’t think they’re part of God’s plan. But I do think that God is present in our places of weakness, and that this allows us to lead from a place of vulnerability instead of a place of coercive strength. That those places in our lives that seem so repugnant also can make us more intentional, perhaps more tender, perhaps more real. It’s the realization that we ourselves might be good enough.
There’s a concept in the New Testament that seminary professors call the “already-not yet tension.” It’s a theme in a lot of Paul’s letters. On the one hand Christ is risen, and all reality has changed because of it, so much so that Paul can ask, “Where is your victory, death?” On the other hand, Christ is not yet come. We still live in a broken world. And in this passage from 2nd Corinthians Paul is experiencing that tension. God’s grace is sufficient. It is already present. It is transforming his life. But the promised land of a complete healing is not yet. The Israelites in the desert are not feasting. But they do have enough.
Now in the communion liturgy in which we will participate in just a few moments, gathered around a table together, we will hear these words: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” The communion that we partake of is a foretaste, quite literally, of the eternal feast to come. We are to expect abundance. We are to expect grace overflowing. But the meal that we share sometimes seems so meager, doesn’t it. Just some pasteurized grape fruit and some bread. Just a few of us, gathered in a circle in a dimly lit chapel, sharing something that doesn’t seem much like a feast. Just a few wandering nomads collecting scraps of bread and hoping they will be enough. And I think that everything that we do as Christians is a bit like that. We gather for worship and for community, and it is not the ringing of heavenly voices. We do our small acts for justice, we go on service trips or go to rallies or write to our members of Congress, and it is not the kingdom of God come on earth, it is rather just a few of us up against systems of oppression and injustice and violence that seem to go on and on. We are anointed with oil and all of our aches and pains and problems do not magically disappear.
But we keep doing these things. We keep pointing toward our hope in a kingdom yet to come. We keep discovering God and each other, God in each other. We keep believing that these small acts, like grace, can be transformative, can move us to somewhere we have not yet been. It doesn’t seem like much. It doesn’t always seem like a miracle. It doesn’t always seem like the kingdom of God come on earth.
But it just might be enough.